Martina de Eccher, Roger Mundry and Nivedita Mani

Children’s subjective uncertainty-driven sampling behaviour

Royal Society Open Science

Are children and adults sensitive to gaps in their knowledge, and do they actively elicit information to resolve such knowledge gaps? In a cross-situational word learning task, we asked 5-year-olds, 6- to 9-year-olds and adults to estimate their knowledge of newly learned word–object associations. We then examined whether participants preferentially sampled objects they reported not knowing the label in order to hear their labels again. We also examined whether such uncertainty-driven sampling behaviour led to improved learning. We found that all age groups were sensitive to gaps in their knowledge of the word–object associations, i.e. were more likely to say they had correctly indicated the label of an object when they were correct, relative to when they were incorrect. Furthermore, 6- to 9-year-olds and adults—but not 5-year-olds—were more likely to sample objects whose labels they reported not knowing. In other words, older children and adults displayed sampling behaviour directed at reducing knowledge gaps and uncertainty, while younger children did not. However, participants who displayed more uncertainty-driven sampling behaviour were not more accurate at test. Our findings underscore the role of uncertainty in driving 6- to 9-year-olds’ and adults’ sampling behaviour and speak to the mechanisms underlying previously reported performance boosts in active learning.